The 2012 New York Film Festival | Portraits

For the second year in a row, I was able to capture some images at the New York Film Festival Press Conferences. Despite my limited screening schedule, I did see quite a few films, including three films (Holy Motors, Beyond The Hills and No) that I consider to be among the best of the year. This year’s crop of pictures is director heavy, but what can I say, I only made it to the movies I needed to see. So, here is a selective look at the fantastic 50th Anniversary of The New York Film Festival…


Olivier Assayas


Leos Carax


Suraj Sharma


Antonia Zegers


Ang Lee


Pablo Larraín


Richard Peña


Dror Moreh


Vittorio Taviani


Verena Paravel


Yann Martel


Lucien Castaing-Taylor


Paolo Taviani


Miguel Gomes

And here is a look back at 2011….

The 2011 Toronto Film Festival | Interview: Frederick Wiseman (CRAZY HORSE)

Created over a career that spans six decades, Frederick Wiseman’s brand of non-fiction filmmaking is notable for both its breadth of subject and its disciplined style; no interviews, no narration, just a strict mandate to capture human interactions and then craft them into dramatic stories in the editing suite. If you were looking for a map of human activity in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, you could do much worse than looking at Wiseman’s portraits of our social institutions. His new film Crazy Horse played at this year’s New York and Toronto Film Festivals. I sat down with Wiseman in Toronto, where we met to discuss the film and his career.


Frederick Wiseman (photo by John Ewing)

BRM: To begin, I’m interested to know how you got involved with The Crazy Horse nightclub. I know you’ve made a lot of films in Paris and have spent some time there; what attracted you about that institution or made you want to address it?

Frederick Wiseman: A couple of things really. I’m interested in dance; if you count Boxing Gym, which is at least in part a dance movie, this is the fourth dance movie I’ve made. Ballet, La Danse, Boxing Gym and now Crazy Horse. It’s also another excuse to stay in Paris and that’s not an incidental reason, but in terms of the films that I’ve done, a lot of my films, in one way or another, have a particular emphasis on aspects of the body. Obviously, any movie is about the body; the monastery movie I made Essene is in part about the denial of the body, Hospital and Near Death are about the wasting of the body through illness, disease and ultimately death, Domestic Violence I &II are about the abuse of the body, Boxing Gym is about controlled violence toward the body, Maneuver, Basic Training and Missile, the three military films, are about the body in the service of the state, used to protect the interest of the state, Model is about the aestheticization of the body to sell commercial products, The Store is about the adornment of the body– so, in an abstract way, the various uses of the body is a theme that cuts across a lot of movies. Crazy Horse is at least in part about the eroticization of the body in order to make money.

BRM: Yes, and that’s a real, political thing. In a lot of the films you mentioned just now, there is a very intense political subtext. Even though the films do not set out to beat you over the head with politics or make specific points–

Wiseman: No, I hope not–

BRM:–no, not at all. But you mentioned that the films have this recognition of violence underneath them. In Crazy Horse, there is a lot of fragmentation of the women and their bodies and the way we look at them.

Wiseman: Exactly.

BRM: So I’m wondering, what do you know going into this situation about how you will articulate this subtext?

Wiseman: Well, I don’t know going in, because I have no idea what I’m going to find. I was at The Crazy Horse twice before the shooting started, so the themes of the movie emerged as a consequence of the period of editing. In this case, it was a year. But, there’s an advantage you have in doing movies about plays or dances that you don’t have in ordinary films; in a performance movie like La Danse or Ballet, there are going to be rehearsals, and then there are going to be performances. So, you can shoot the same thing, pretty much done the same way, a number of times and in a number of ways. Whereas, if you take a movie like Welfare, you see an interesting sequence going on, you have one shot to get it and you have to think about the cut aways and the wide shots, while at the same time shooting it to make the content clear. That’s not true in these performance or dance movies. What I tried to do during the course of the shooting was to accumulate sequences I was interested in, shot in as many different ways as possible, so I would have choices in the editing room. For example, there’s a sequence in the movie called Baby Buns; The Crazy Horse is open seven night a week, two shows a night, except Saturday, which is three shows–fifteen shows a week. So, you can shoot Baby Buns one time as a wide shot, one time from the left hand side of the stage, another night from the right, another night of just close-ups, etc. so that six months later when you’re in the editing room and you want to make a sequence out of Baby Buns, you can do it and you can cut it as if it was staged for a movie that way, even though it wasn’t. Because the event is a repetitive one, you can create choices for yourself.


Crazy Horse

BRM: And that performative aspect is different in so many ways from what people traditionally think of with a lot of your films.

Wiseman: And correctly, because in most of the film, that opportunity doesn’t exist. The only film that that exists in prior to the dance films was Meat, and I’m not making any comparisons between an abattoir and a ballet company, but with 3000 head of cattle and 1500 sheep killed every day, you had the opportunity to follow that process and shoot it different ways.

BRM: Is there something about France or Paris in particular that draws you to their creative community?

Wiseman: I don’t think it’s about their creative community per se; I was a student in Paris years ago and it was great and the food’s good. It’s a beautiful place to live, I like walking around there, I have a lot of friends there. I’m not the sole person to think this way (laughs). In a cultural sense, its no different than living in New York; in New York you have a great choice of music, theater and dance. The same in Paris. It’s a comfortable place to live and it’s small; it’s only 2,000,000 people. And it’s beautiful, the center of the city is similar to the way it was a long time ago and they have the good sense to keep it that way. So, it’s fun.

BRM: Do you feel you have an outsider’s perspective there that you don’t have in the U.S.?

Wiseman: That’s an interesting question. It’s complicated by what you mean by “outsider.” When I went to a welfare center in New York or a public housing project in Chicago, I was an outsider because the experiences of the clients of those places were not my experience, either as a child or an adult. On the other hand, everyone was speaking the same language and the references–cultural, political, sports, movies, music– you assume, correctly or incorrectly, that in your own society, you understand the cultural cues. In France, and my French is good but far from perfect, there’s always the risk that I’m going to misinterpret a cultural cue– not that there isn’t a risk of misinterpreting something in America too, that’s certainly the case. But it’s a greater risk when you’re working outside of the culture you grew up in because you take it for granted, and maybe it’s pretentious, but you can deceive yourself into thinking you understand your own culture better. I’m more cautious about making judgements, but that caution comes up more in the editing than the shooting, because in the shooting, you have to make up your mind very quickly. Often, if you miss the first 30 seconds, you miss the basic aspect of the encounter from which the rest of the sequence unfolds. I don’t think being an outsider has been a problem, more that you have to be aware of that and deal with it.

BRM: It’s tough to say your films are objective; you’re making choices and omitting information just like anyone else in order to tell a story. But people tend to draw strong conclusions from your films based on what they bring to the experience. Your films have a very steady perspective; I’m wondering how that impacts your access to a place like The Crazy Horse or other institutions you are trying to approach. Once they go back and look at your work, do you run into roadblocks from potential subjects over how they experience your previous films?

Wiseman: I always present the person or institution that I am interested in a list and description of my previous films and tell them that I can make any of these films available to them. In the case of The Crazy Horse, both the dancers and the administration saw La Comédie-Française and La Danse, some of them watched Welfare, there were five or six films circulating among the 50 or 60 people working at The Crazy Horse. It’s very important to me to make that offer and I always hope people will take me up on it. Often, I make the offer and people don’t ask for anything. I want them to, because I want the process and the way I work to be transparent. I don’t want someone to say to me after working on a film for a year “You didn’t tell me there was no narration!” or “I thought I was going to be interviewed!” I also make that clear in a letter that I write before the shooting starts; although I don’t form a legal contract, I always write a letter in advance summarizing my understanding of our situation. The letter says basically that it’s a maximum period of ten weeks, we have to have access to everything that is going on, if there is a sequence someone doesn’t want shot, all they have to do is say no and that’s the end of it, that I have complete editorial control, that the film will be shown on Public television and theatrically, it may be shown in other countries, I own the rights in perpetuity, etc. I try to anticipate anything that might subsequently be an issue, and then I ask them to either acknowledge receipt of it or sign a copy of it and send it back to me. So, in effect its a contract where all of the potential divisive issues have been resolved.

BRM: Once you’ve started, I guess you’re alive to the moments as they are happening; I’m wondering about how surprise works in your filmmaking. With this film, were there surprises that were bigger than most of your films? How do you integrate that sense of surprise into your process?

Wiseman: Well, there’s always surprise because when I start, I basically know nothing about these places. In some ways I feel I know nothing about them in the end, too. In a sense, the shooting of the film is the research. I’m always surprised because I like to think I’m learning something. One of the interesting things for me, coming out of the experience of being at The Crazy Horse, is what constitutes eroticism and sensuality? For some people, the rehearsals may be more erotic than the performances, because in the rehearsals, the women act more naturally; there’s no makeup, they have halters on, they’re not wearing wigs– they’re just a group of attractive women dancing and rehearsing. In the show, it’s more performance oriented, often multiple women have the same makeup and clothing, and so it’s less personal. It may be more aesthetic in the formal sense– there isn’t much lighting in the rehearsals. But much of the film is asking, in an abstract way, what is beauty, what is eroticism, how do women maintain their beauty, etc.

BRM: And interestingly here, the decision makers, on the creative side anyway, are primarily men, which sets up a real question about the dynamics of power here. Also, It was surprising to see how seriously they take this work; you think of cabaret or striptease as being “low culture,” but here, the subjects treat their work as “high culture.”

Wiseman: The choreographer Philippe Decouflé is a very famous choreographer, not in the classical ballet world, but popular dance and he has his own modern dance company. He has a very good sense of humor; he was the choreographer for the French Winter Olympics. He’s a very accomplished man and the choreography in the film reflects that. It’s not Swan Lake, but it’s technically complicated and imaginative.

BRM: And he’s got a rival, in a way, which again, was a surprise to see the institution giving the keys to the super fan and allowing him to subvert Decouflé in a lot of ways. When you see something like that going on, does the hair on your neck stand up?

Wiseman: Well, my big ears do prick up. In the beginning, I wasn’t sure whether it was going to be good for the film or not, but I concluded it would be. Some of the scenes between them, with their different styles of expression, provide some of the important aspects of the structure of the film.

BRM: What about the decision not to go outside of the club? In any of your films–

Wiseman: Right, it doesn’t happen in any of my films. In Welfare we don’t visit people in welfare hotels or in welfare apartments. My films are about the place; it’s usually one building or a very limited geographical area. These limitations serve the same function for me as the lines do on a tennis court. In other, words, what takes place in the geographical space of the building is good. Anything outside? Out of bounds.

BRM: Can you talk a little bit about your appreciation of dance? What draws you to dance as a form?

Wiseman: I’ve been a ballet fan for years. When I was in law school, I used to go in to New York City and go see the New York City Ballet in the 1950’s. I’ve been in New York a lot over the years– I was teaching a class in New York, have friends in New York– so I’ve been to the ballet a lot. In 1995, I made La Comédie-Française and was in Paris for about six months, so I started going to the ballet in France. And for the reasons I stated earlier, I wanted to make another movie in France, so I got in touch with the Paris Opera Ballet, went to see them and again, they said yes right away. That was one of the great experiences of my life making that film. The Crazy Horse idea came up by chance; I was having dinner with a French friend and she said “have you thought about making a movie about a Parisian nightclub?” and I said “Yeah, but I haven’t gotten around to it,” and she said “Decouflé is doing a new show at the Crazy Horse, maybe they’d be interested?” So, the next night we went to The Crazy Horse.


Crazy Horse

BRM: What was that experience like for you?

Wiseman: Well, I had been to The Crazy Horse once before, in 1957 with my father-in-law and I hadn’t been back. I did see the potential filmic value when I went back to see the show, so I went in the next day and they said okay.

BRM: They use a lot of cinematic techniques in the show itself. It’s a very cinematic show. How much did you draw from that when you were making decisions during the shoot?

Wiseman: Some of the sequences in the film are me filming the movies that are a part of the show. Sometimes you don’t know if its a silhouette shot of the dancers behind the screen or a movie that’s being projected for the audience at the club. I knew when I saw the show that this could have great potential value for the movie I wanted to make, but i didn’t have any idea specifically of how I wanted to use it.

BRM: Can you talk about the decision to break up the performances in the editing? When you’re cutting the film, there’s got to some really tough decisions about how you’re going to assemble these sequences without violating the spirit of the pieces being performed.

Wiseman: Well, it’s very hard. In a sense, it’s harder to do it with that kind of performance than with dialogue–

BRM: Absolutely. You’d think talking would be bracketed by the natural flow of conversation–

Wiseman: Yes, you can edit a talking sequence so that it appears that it took place the way you’re seeing it in the movie. It doesn’t make any difference that the three and a half minutes of dialogue in the film came from 40 minutes of rushes that come from 50 minutes of real time. But here, unlike the ballet where an act may be 45 minutes or an hour, the acts at The Crazy Horse are four or five minutes, a couple of them maybe six minutes tops. So, it’s a question of not only finding a place where you can cut into the music, but also finding a place where you can cut into the movement so that, without suggesting you’re seeing the whole number, it doesn’t violate the spirit of the number. That was not easy, and it was further complicated by the fact, and in a problem that doesn’t exist in a non-performance film, where you have so much music. In a talk film, you can cut from one conversation or one scene to another, as long as they’ve got a visual or thematic connection. But it’s very difficult to cross fade music, because the music at the end of one scene can really screw up the new music in the next scene. One of the issues in the editing is to find little transition shots so that the music of the sequence that is finishing can fade out and you don’t have to cut– it’s terrible when you cut music abruptly. It either has to end naturally or you have to fade it so it appears to end naturally and then you need a pause, not more than a second or two, before you can begin to fade in music for the next sequence. It’s an interesting problem, and because the sequences are shorter, it was more of a problem on Crazy Horse.

BRM: Can you talk a little bit about your work process? I mean filming, editing, film festivals, starting again, shooting editing. I assume you’re making every decision on these films–

Wiseman: Yes.

BRM: — so, maybe this is not an interesting question, but your work schedule must be outrageous.

Wiseman: Well, it is outrageous. I have a knack for picking places that are open all the time. At The Crazy Horse, we’d shoot a thirteen hour day. So, it’s a long day and after shooting, we’d have to watch rushes. One of the things I like about making movies like this is that it makes demands of every aspect of your being. You’ve got to stay in shape because it’s a sport; if you’re not in shape, you can’t run around with the equipment all day and be reasonably alert to make choices and get the quality you need. It’s often, depending on the subject matter, very emotionally demanding; in a movie like Near Death or Hospital, I mean, making movies is a decent defense but you’re seeing some pretty difficult situations. And, intellectually speaking, working like this is extremely stimulating because you have to think your way through the experience in order to make the choices that make the movie. The movie is made up of hundreds of thousands of choices. During the shooting, there’s no time for analysis; you have to act instinctively and one of the reasons you shoot a lot of film is, it’s better to shoot and be wrong than not shoot and say “Oh shit, I missed it.” I always err on the side of shooting to much, because I’d rather get the sequence. All of these sequences are found sequences. You’d have to be a genius writer to invent some of these sequences, but if you’re lucky enough to be there when they happen and to recognize them for what they are, you can use them in order to construct the film. So much of making these movies is not about filming and film technique per se, it has to do with asking yourself and answering for yourself the question “why?” Why are these words being used? Why is this person moving his head one way or the other? Why is he asking for a cigarette at this point? Why isn’t he looking someone in the ye? Why did she walk away?

BRM: Do you allow yourself emotional involvement in all of this?

Wiseman: I try not to. The work is so demanding, it’s not a serious problem. There’s the joke about not crossing the line when you’re making a movie about a modeling agency or The Crazy Horse, but it’s completely unprofessional. I found myself in some movies, like Hospital, Near Death, Welfare or Public Housing or Titticut Follies, of being extremely moved and emotionally involved, but because you’re there to make a film and the equipment is a kind of defense, it’s not as if you’re there just watching; you’re there to make a movie. So, you can’t indulge personal feelings. You don’t have time, even if you wanted to. And you also know you can’t intervene.


Titicut Follies

BRM: A final question, completely different topic. You’re kind of a pioneer of self-distribution. One of things that’s fascinating now, with video-on-demand and the internet, is that filmmakers now have a real chance to put out their own movies and create strategies to control their own content. You’ve done an amazing job over the course of your career of setting up a business around your work. How has that impacted your ability to make films and are you passionate about the control you retain over your films?

Wiseman: To answer the last part first, I am passionate. I own the rights to all of my movies. A couple of the French movies, I have a French partner, but otherwise, I own them. I’ve done that from the beginning. I have complete control over my own work. I set up my own distribution company in 1971 really because I had no alternative. I got screwed so badly by Grove Press on the first two movies I did, Titicut Follies and High School; they made money on them and I never saw any money and I had to sue Grove Press. I figured there is 100% margin of error, so if mistakes are made from then on they would be my mistakes and if money came in, I got to keep it. My distribution company has been in existence now for 40 years and one person has run it for me for the last 30. She’s terrific, it’s her and one assistant and the two of them run it. Originally, it was a production company but that’s just a matter of making a budget and getting permission; she does the budgets now and I get the permissions. That aspect is not that demanding. But it was originally 16mm, then video and now DVD. I was late getting my movies out in America on DVD because nobody made me an offer and I thought it was going to be a real hassle and I just avoided doing it. Then we just decided it was time, let’s get them out and it’s been fantastically successful. I got offered peanuts by some of the big DVD distribution companies, I mean, it was such a minuscule, pitiful offer, I couldn’t take it seriously. So, for a minimal investment on our part, it’s been extremely successful and it’s all internet. I was never much of a techie and I didn’t understand the viral nature of it, but my God, it was terrific. We put out a small internet press release, bloggers and people who are interested in movies started to write about it, we had a website and the orders started coming in and they’re still coming in. I’m going to do the same thing on VOD now.

BRM: Has this empowered your filmmaking in any way?

Wiseman: Well, it’s made it possible for me to eat (laughs). I’ve always enjoyed being independent, but its made my independence possible because it’s harder to raise money now than it was twenty years ago. There isn’t as much money around for this stuff and there are more people who want to make movies. A lot of people assume I have a very easy time raising money and it’s murderous.

BRM: Thank you very much for you time.

Wiseman: It was a very good interview. Thank you very much.

–Tom Hall

The BRM’s Greatest Hits | Interview: Arnaud Desplechin, A Christmas Tale (2008)

In celebration of the past seven years of my indieWIRE blog and my migration to a new home here on my own, I will be posting a few Greatest Hits, my favorite posts from the indieWIRE era. Some may be painful, many bear the marks of years worth of growth on my end, but I hope they still have some value. Enjoy!

This is my second interview with Arnaud Desplechin, this time focusing on his film A Christmas Tale. Again, among my favorite pieces I’ve ever done, a film I love so much, a filmmaker who moves me deeply.


If you enjoy these interviews, I will be reposting my Fred Wiseman interview here asap, and I have interviews completed with Mia Hansen-Løve (Goodbye, First Love), Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardene (The Kid With A Bike) and Justin Kurzel (Snowtown) in the bag, all coming soon. Thanks for reading!

The original date of publication was November 5, 2008.

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There comes a moment in preparing to interview a filmmaker like Arnaud Desplechin where you’re faced with a problem that I can only assume haunts mathematicians, physicists and priests; where do you begin talking about something without responding to the urgent need to understand everything? Take each of Desplechin’s films on its own terms and you’re left breathless by the incredible emotional and philosophical range of the filmmaking. But once you’ve been hooked, beware; despite the director’s humble refusals to the contrary, it is almost impossible to see Desplechin’s work without experiencing a sublime architecture, the sensation of being pulled back and forth across a dazzling array of rhymes; images and situations, characters and dialogues, each film, each moment adding exponentially to the mystery of the whole.


Arnaud Desplechin

In early October, I sat down with Desplechin for the second time as an interviewer. The director was in town for the New York Film Festival, helping to promote his latest film A Christmas Tale, and I was honored that he took time out of his very busy schedule to speak with me again. As I am neither a priest nor a physicist, I decided instead to begin the discussion talking to him about A Christmas Tale, but as it turned out, this was the fastest thirty minutes of my life! There is so much to discuss, to know; maybe someday soon we might be able to devote the time required for an in-depth conversation about his work as a whole. I remain hopeful; my fingers remain crossed.

Back Row Manifesto: When we last spoke, you said the following about the process of creating your stories:

“Each time I’m starting to work on a film, even if I love to settle the plot in the real world, I start to think about the plot as a fairy tale, or a dream, or a nightmare… As if it was the best way to tell the truth about characters or narration, instead of realism.”

Tell me about the fairy tales and the nightmares that lead you to the conception of A Christmas Tale?

Arnaud Desplechin: This time, I came to the story through this idea that I was going to be making a Christmas movie. How can you take this family, this material and make it a good film? For me it was important not to be too nice. Who wants to see a family where everyone gets along? It would be boring! At the same time, it cannot be too terrible; if it is too terrible and cruel, it doesn’t make for a good movie. It doesn’t work.

Take this idea of the transfusion for Henri, who hates his mother. Could we make it where he refuses the transfusion and lets his mother die? No, it would be too much. At the same time, should it be that yes, Henri receives this transfusion and comes away from it as the good son who loves his mother? That he has been changed by the operation? Come on! This would be too corny. So, it has to be something in between. For me, it is how do I get this balance?

The story took off from there, and yes, there was the influence of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the idea of these characters landing in the middle of this celebration and spending the night, not sure if they are awake or dreaming, falling in love with one another, switching beds, and in the morning, unsure of what happened to them. Was this real, did this really happen?

BRM: I understand that you were reading a book on genetic disease, La Greffe (The Transplant) by Jacques Ascher and Jean-Pierre Jouet, which deals with the relationship between transplants and their psychological impacts. Can you tell me more about how this mind-body connection inspired A Christmas Tale?

AD: It’s true, I was reading this book about these transplants and I was fascinated by the fact that this very transplant (the bone-marrow transplant) was the one that takes the greatest psychological toll on the person receiving it. For some reason, receiving the marrow, people feel like they are no longer themselves, that something about them has changed. The marrow invades the body, it comes in and takes over and the (recipient) feels as though they are not themselves. The marrow is a foreign body, it becomes its own thing, an invader. I thought about this specific set of characters facing this specific problem, this foreign body, and that was the beginning of the idea for the film.

BRM: All of this operates on a mythological level as well… this passing on of these issues in the blood of the family members, this classical idea of bloodlines and their connection to the family drama.

AD: Yes, even the name. In the book, it’s a very technical book for specialists, but even in medicine, the transplanted marrow is called The Chimera. That’s the actual name for it. What is fascinating is that, in a way, the person becomes something else entirely; They are no longer themselves, and they are not the person who gave them this blood. They are something in-between. Who are they?

Also, there are other elements of the story that had this mythical, theatrical quality that you speak of; in the very beginning, we have a courtroom scene that is like something out of a Russian play, and the sister stands up and says, “You are banished!” So, we are playing with this very old idea of banishment. We also have this very naïve shadow play at the beginning, telling the story of the death of the son with these puppets.

On the same level, we could discuss Junon. I wanted to reverse this idea of the parents; Here we have a mother who doesn’t nurture her children and father who runs around mothering everyone. I liked this for these characters, this reversal. I like the idea of the nurturing father and the fatherly mother.

BRM: Yes, Junon has an almost imperial presence…

AD: Yes, precisely. At the same time, it is Catherine Deneuve… I wanted to play with her status as a movie star, as this larger than life figure on the screen. The character’s name is Junon, but you might as well call her Jupiter, it would be just as accurate.


Catherine Deneuve in A Christmas Tale

BRM: Do you see a relationship between madness and family? I am thinking of the character of Paul in the film and how he sees himself in the mirror…

AD: For me, there is the powerful moment that you speak of, when Paul is sitting there and his reflection stares back at him and gives this frightening grin. I think the young actor did a wonderful job in this moment; he gives it the feeling of horror. I wanted to show that with Paul, he has a conflicted reaction to this moment. He is afraid, but at the same time he feels the thrill of this power; He holds the life of his grandmother in his hands, and it is thrilling for him to feel powerful. This character is such a dull character; he doesn’t speak much, he doesn’t do much, but he is really the key to this scenario.

As for his relationship to Henri, you see that Paul is the one who sets these events into motion; He chooses this Christmas to reunite his three uncles and have the family together. Emotionally, Henri is rough with him, but by the end of the film, you understand that Paul is okay with Henri. Paul wants to know how he will end up: like this uncle? Like that one? Which path will he follow? You can even see in the final scenes how these two begin to look like one another; it’s strange, but it’s true. I watch them and I think how much alike they seem in the end.

When Henri is in the hospital for the transfusion, I wanted it also to be a sort of horror. This hospital is a dramatic, horrible place. I don’t like to shoot on sets, I use real locations and we shot these scenes in the real Roubaix hospital, so that the nurses are talking and working as they normally would. But the transfusion itself is almost like a Cronenberg moment in this hospital. It’s frightening, a nightmare.

BRM: Let’s talk about the use of signs in your films. Watching your movies, it seems that one should begin looking at these films like you might look at paintings, with coded signs embedded in them. Can you discuss your use of signs? What would you like the audience to take from these?

AD: I do not want to trick the audience. The idea of these things, these signs, is not meant to be a surprise; yes, it is there, but it is not meant as a trick. What I mean is: for sure, meanings and signs appear on a screen. But it’s not my will. My job, as a director, is just to give to all those strange meanings a nice shape, a nice form and a good pace.

My feeling is that, as soon as reality is screened, it starts to mean. It’s not the director who’s doing that, it’s the cinema itself. A simple corridor transforms itself into a threat, or a refuge, or a path, a birth, a death, an evocation of 2001: A Space Odyssey, whatever; a white napkin transforms itself into a gloomy sheet (Shaft Returns), the bed sheet transforms itself into a cinema screen (Notting Hill), and the blanket of It Happened One Night becomes a wall between Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert.

I couldn’t call them “signs”, because, as a spectator, I don’t feel compelled to interpret them. Or worse, to give the “right interpretation”?! No, it just happens when reality starts to shine, to glow. My job as a director is just to notice these odd rhymes that happened all the time, and to use them in the storytelling. Yes, the grave of Joseph that you can see in the graveyard in Roubaix was inspired by Waldo (Emerson)’s grave in Concord. But I hope no one in the audience will notice it. It just helps me to draw a nice mythical grave, to draw a dream that you can inhabit.

BRM: You are putting so much into each frame, we’ve only just discussed one minute of the movie…

AD: But this is not all meant to be for the audience to be aware of! This is just my job of being a good pupil and making sure it is there.

BRM: How should the audience see these things? Is this why audiences come away from your films feeling their depth but, as is often the case, being unable to articulate why the film they experienced feels so rich?

AD: My goal is not to have the audience search for all of this. I want them to be entertained, to be dazzled. This is what I mean by being a good pupil. These images, these sounds; they come out of the screen in waves. Each level of the image, all of the (images) in (a single shot), the sound; they come out off the screen on many different levels and directly to the audience. I want them to come away from it like the movie has dazzled them.

BRM: These waves are like layers of meaning? Are audiences taking all of this in at once?

AD: Yes, precisely. I think so.

BRM: You mentioned in an earlier conversation that you couldn’t say everything, because the images in your films have “hidden implications”. Can you elaborate on this idea?

AD: It is just as I said. For example with The Ten Commandments; Catherine Deneuve comes from a family where her father was a famous French voiceover artist. Her father did the dubbing on many movies, and the first movie she ever saw in the movie theater was The Ten Commandments with her father’s voice as Charlton Heston. So, here I filmed her watching this movie, listening to her own father’s voice and I think we get something unique this scene of watching her watch the film. Or with this use of Funny Face; Is it a comment on the theme of transformation? Okay, sure. But for me it is a little love note to Emmannuelle Devos because I think she has a funny face. It’s both.


A Christmas Tale

BRM: Let’s talk about the location, Roubaix, which has featured in your last two films (A Christmas Tale and the documentary L’Aimee). At the center of these, and even La Vie Des Morts, there is this wonderful family house; the rooms, the paintings; it all seems to be an expression of your personal history. Now, I know you resist the idea that your films seem to inhabit one another…

AD: I am not allowed to agree…

BRM: But this seems clear in …

AD: I am not allowed to agree! (laughing)

BRM: I’ll take that as a yes… (Desplechin laughs). But truthfully, how has this place (Roubaix) shaped your work?

AD: It’s funny; I showed the film Esther Kahn to my cousin and his comment to me after the screening was “You’ve certainly gone a long way out of your way to make a film about Roubaix.” Of course, that’s right. It has that same brick feeling, that same… How can I put this? Roubaix is crappy. It is a pitiful town to look at. But for me, the idea was to take this family, this family that sees itself on this mythical level, and put them in this very humble environment. At the same time, it was a challenge to put this town in the movie and make it seem like the place for this family, so we played around with it.

BRM: A little more about Roubaix: There is a lovely scene in the middle of the film where Abel reads a quote from the preface to Nietzsche’s book On The Genealogy Of Morals (this English translation is from the book, not the film’s subtitles):

“We remain unknown to ourselves, we seekers of knowledge, even to ourselves; and with good reason. We have never sought ourselves– so how should we one day find ourselves? It has been rightly said the ‘Where your treasure is, there will be your heart also’; our treasure is to be found in the beehives of knowledge. Imagine someone who, when woken suddenly from divine distraction and self-absorption by the twelve strokes of the loud noon bell asks himself: ‘What time is it?’ In much the same way, we rub our ears after the fact and ask in complete surprise and embarrassment ‘What was that we just experienced?’ or even ‘Who are we really?’ Then we count back over in retrospect every one of those twelve trembling strokes of our life, our being– and alas! lose our count in the process. We remain a mystery to ourselves, we fail to understand ourselves, we are bound to mistake ourselves. Of ourselves, we have no knowledge.”

Abel reads this to Elizabeth to explain her sadness, and you immediately cut to these very poetic shots of Roubaix… This moment has the physical texture of memory and feels very personal against this Nietzsche text, almost an unreal or estranged quality. Two questions: When seeing these images of Roubaix, do you as an artist share Nietzsche’s sense of estrangement? Can you tell me about this moment and how you created it?

AD: My challenge in that scene was to take those big words, which are so abstract, so intimidating, and to make them simple. “To bring the words back home”, as one said. Then, the situation is so simple.

Elizabeth feels lost, her father wants to comfort her. And it’s hard to find the right words. Then, he juts picks this book and starts to read. And I’m sure that it reminds him when Elizabeth was 9 or 11, and came in his office. And Elizabeth remembers when her father was forty and powerful. Yes, Elizabeth fucked up, but he doesn’t want to lecture her; that’s why he’s just reading these lines, as an obscure reproach he could say about himself.

Already in the script, I knew I wouldn’t keep all the lines, that the sound would dissolve in these empty shots of Roubaix. I couldn’t force a spectator to listen to them, but I wanted to permit to the audience to hear the mutual and clumsy affection between Abel and Elizabeth. I need to have the feeling that somewhere, a 14 year-old girl or guy will get the scene, that it will connect with her or his personal experience of life. At the end of it, what do we hear? That, in a way, we all had an appointment with ourselves and we’ve all missed this rendezvous. What did we experience? We don’t know!

It was a hell to have these empty tracking shots in the street with the right snow! We shot them in January, with Eric (Gautier, the film’s cinematographer) and a very small crew. I guess we did it this way because it’s my only way to understand those lines. Not the intellectual way, or an academic way. But through a scene, through the 2 characters, and this rough town, I thought I was able to say what I understood of those lines.

BRM: On now to personal sacrifice, which is huge issue at the center of this film. Can you talk to me about this idea of sacrifice, from Abel and Junon’s individual reactions to the loss of their child to Henri and Paul’s competition to donate bone marrow for Junon, how these competing parent-child sacrifices found their way into this story?

AD: I’m not that keen with the idea of any sacrifice. I felt the bigger risk was (making) a film that happens at Christmas. Is it because I was raised as a Catholic? I guess! But you know the awful kitsch of Christmas! No, I like it as nice feast for kids, period; the magic of it, not the sacrifice.

I think Henri is doing this transplant for himself. He will do it, but he doesn’t think it’s a generous gesture. I loved the competition between the nephew and the uncle because you can think Henri is a monster; he’s bashing his nephew all the time. But at the end of it, think if Paul would have been the donor and Junon would have died? The kid would never become a man! He would have been crushed under the guilt. Henri is the only one who can bear this guilt and get rid of it.


Mathieu Amalric in A Christmas Tale

Finishing the movie, the last day of the mix, I was moved to tears looking at the nightstand of Abel, with the photo of Joseph. I realized that Abel and Junon never spoke about Joseph’s death. Did I regret it? I think that, in this family, loss is a thing that you can’t share. Perhaps it’s nice, in a way, to admit it. The loss was such an absolute disaster than there was nothing to share in it. Abel can speak about Joseph, but only in a pub, with a pal or in a cemetery with his son. But the only things he has to share with Junon are their silence and their love. They are a brash couple; for them, mourning is a thing you do alone.

BRM: You mentioned previously that you feel as though A Christmas Tale is less sensual than your previous films. And yet, here we have a lovely romantic scene, very sensual, between Sylvia and Simon. Can you elaborate on this idea? In what ways do you see your work as sensual and how does A Christmas Tale fit into your work this way?

AD: Did I? Oh, I hope it’s sensual! I love the scene with Simon out of the frame and Chiara undressing. To me, her performance is amazing. It’s so sensual, or so physical I could say.

To me, it’s much more interesting rather than ‘poetic’, it’s precise! As if each gesture is a precise evocation of all the gestures of physical love. She almost laughs, with the pleasure of discovering herself, because a man is discovering her body. I love this scene!

During the shooting, I couldn’t stop to think of this shot of Catherine Deneuve in La Sirène du Mississippi. Belmondo is out of the frame, and he describes her face to Catherine, barely daring to touch her eyebrow, chin and cheekbone. Catherine’s face transforms into a landscape. She is magnified when she realizes she has such a power over this man. He starts to belong to her, because of the way this man is looking at her.


Chiara Mastroianni in A Christmas Tale

BRM: We also spoke last time of the ghosts that populate your films; This time, we have Simon, “the ghost”, who loves his cousin’s wife from afar and even Anatole, the unseen wolf who haunts the family basement. You said to me last time that “perhaps, all theses ghosts are spoors, cinematic appearances of the past in the middle of the present.” Can you elaborate on Simon’s place in your pantheon of ghosts?

AD: Hmm… perhaps am I unable. His love reminds me the way Paul Dedalus loves Sylvia in My Sex Life. He knows nothing can make it work, that any rival would be better for such a woman. But he can’t stop loving her. I love these men who can accept that they’ve lost. I’m sure I’ll find him again and again in my next film, if I have the chance to make another one!

BRM: Speaking of which, in this film we have another Paul Dedalus! This time, a younger man who is on the verge of schizophrenia, much like the previous Paul’s own dreams of madness, his own confession of wishing his parents dead in My Sex Life… How do you see the relationship between the two Pauls?

AD: Let’s say this name came as a gift to the character. I knew Paul would be this young man who can’t allow anything to himself, who can’t grow up and who can’t become anything; a character who doesn’t succeed in becoming what he has to be. And I knew that he couldn’t be the center of the movie because I had all the other characters in the house. Here you have this gang of big mouths and one adolescent, so shy, totally crushed by his family.

One day, I chose to call him ‘Paul’. As a promise; “Ok, boy, in this movie, you’ll have a hard time. But don’t worry, in ten years, you’ll end on a couch, with your psychoanalyst, you’ll have nice fiancés, and a good life. How do I know it? Because I already filmed your life when you will be 30.”

It was lovely when we filmed the footing with Paul and Henri, to see the blossoming of a strange friendship, as if, at the end, they even start to look alike. The nephew surely missed this uncle. We always need a bad example; it can be useful and warm. And Mathieu was the right man to do it; he played Paul in My Sex Life!

BRM: Can you tell me about your relationship with your amazing editor, Laurence Briaud? This film feels so much lighter, quicker, than your previous films… She is really brilliant. You have worked together since your first feature film, and with each movie, your collaboration seems to grow deeper. What is this process like, how do you work together?

AD: (pauses). Yes, it is very a deep connection. We begin by making a ‘best of’; we take all of the best moments and assemble them into a very large version of the film and then we start the process of looking for the way to tell the story within these moments. As we do this, we are forced to take things away and the movie becomes smaller and smaller, and we continue to find ways to tell the story. Sometimes, Laurence will assemble some footage and I will ask myself “Would I do it this way?” and I take it aside and play with it on my own, moving things around here and there. But it is mostly this commitment to using the best of what we have.

We also use music to edit the film. For example, the opening sequence with Junon making tea, these very simple shots; what would she be thinking of? Of love? Of her grandchildren? I was watching (Jean) Renoir’s The River at the time, and I was listening to these Indian ragas quite a bit, so I put the music down over these shots in the editing room and that is how the scene found its meaning. It made sense of what we were doing with the scene. That’s often how it works.

BRM: Your collaboration with her continues to grow?

AD: Yes, very deeply.


Desplechin directs Amalric on the set of A Christmas Tale

BRM: A Christmas Tale is being released by IFC Films, using their so-called ‘day-and-date’ program that brings the film to cable TV video-on-demand on the same day it is released in a few theaters. I am wondering what your thoughts are on this, and on the fact that, according to numbers recently reported, films on television video-on-demand are outselling the theatrical release at about 2 to 1 in the United States. Does this new strategy excite you as an artist?

AD: I really can’t say. I have no opinion on how the films are released. It would distract me from my work, which is just to give them the best film I’m able to create. But, it seems to me Ryan Werner is a great man, don’t you think? (ED– Yes. yes I do.)

BRM: What can we expect next from you? What stories are you working on? The last time we spoke, you mentioned a 1970’s family drama about teenagers—

AD: Yes, that one! It’s not about family, but about the teenagers and drugs and hip-hop. I took the family out of this idea and made A Christmas Tale, and this new film is the other part of the same idea. But since it is hip-hop, it is no longer set in the 1970’s. Instead, I moved it to the 1980’s, 1983, and it is really about this time, the drugs and the French hip-hop scene with teenagers.

BRM: You had also mentioned you were working on a Philip Roth adaptation…

AD: Ah, the Philip Roth is… I don’t know. I need to find a way to make this the right way. I worship Philip Roth as a writer. I love his books. But I think it might be impossible to make a film that is worthy of his book. There have been some movies made of his books, and… You have to be sure that you make the movie as good as the book. I would die of shame if I made a film of his work and it wasn’t worthy of the book.

No, there is another project, a spy movie. It is about this bizarre, cold world we live in today, it is very much about this time. I was very moved by (the tragedy of) September 11th; the world has become so strange, especially Europe. This would be going back to something like La Sentinelle, but with a lot of action, and it would be examining the changes in Europe, whatever that is. What is Europe now? This is something I’d like to explore, and I think the best way to do it is to use spies, this secret world, to examine it.

BRM: Arnaud, thank you so much for talking with me.

AD: Thank you… my pleasure.

The 2011 New York Film Festival | Portraits

It was a great year at The New York Film Festival, but what else is new? It remains my favorite film festival, a near-perfect annual survey of the kind of cinema I love. I will be reproducing my NYFF coverage here as part of the migration from indieWIRE, but writing aside, I was excited this year to break out my camera during a few of the NYFF press conferences and grab some photos. I didn’t make it to every conference (although I only missed a few), but I really enjoyed taking pictures this year. Lots of fun. Enjoy!

Michael Fassbender
Michael Fassbender, Shame

Elizabeth Olsen
Elizabeth Olsen, Martha Marcy May Marlene

Jean-Pierre Dardenne
Jean-Pierre Dardenne, The Kid With A Bike

Bérénice Bejo
Bérénice Bejo, The Artist

Richard Peña
Richard Peña, Program Director, The Film Society Of Lincoln Center

Mia Hansen-Løve
Mia Hansen-Løve, Goodbye First Love

Luc Dardenne
Luc Dardenne, The Kid With A Bike

Steve McQueen
Steve McQueen, Shame

Jean Dujardin
Jean Dujardin, The Artist

Sean Durkin
Sean Durkin, Martha Marcy May Marlene

Lola Créton
Lola Créton, Goodbye First Love

James Cromwell
James Cromwell, The Artist

Scott Foundas
Scott Foundas, Associate Program Director, The Film Society Of Lincoln Center

Michel Haznavicius
Michel Haznavicius, The Artist

If you like these photos, feel free to reproduce them online under the Creative Commons license, but please toss me a credit. Also, I am available for weddings, Bar/Bat Mitzvahs, Christenings… *ha*